Depending on how you misspent your youth you will see this book as about as riveting as a two-volume tome chronicling the life-cycle of the liver-fluke or as moving the velvet rope aside and leading you to a ringside seat at an enchanted land that emerged just as Mark Twain’s Gilded Age finally gave up the ghost and gave way to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age and is now as lost to us as Atlantis.
My own salad days were squandered not on the green baize of the billiard halls of a nation like many of my chums but in Hoovering up American by the lunch-pail, so that whilst in the factual reality I was washing down chip butties with Tizer in the real reality of imagination I was wolfing Nedick’s and/or Nathan’s Famous hot dogs and cleansing my palate with Orange Julius; I lived not at 16, Acacia Avenue but at 49, Wistful Vista, houseguest of Fibber McGee & Molly; while neighbours were huddled around the Ekco chuckling at Happidrome, I was tuning the Atwater Kent to Baron Munchausen (“Vass you dere, Sharlie?”), or Joe Penner (“Wanna Buy A Duck?”); whilst schoolfriends were gasping at Donald Campbell I was grinning at “Wrong-Way” Corrigan (on 17 July 1938, pilot Doug Corrigan took off from New York bound for California and landed, 28 hours later, in Dublin).
Standing four-square in the centre of this world in their mansion at No 1, East Ninety-First Street or 1100 Fifth Avenue, depending on how you approached it, were Otto and Addie Kahn and their children, a.k.a. The Kahns Of Fifth Avenue. Now, via my own personal Dr. Who, Iain Cameron Williams, I can time-travel back to that enchanted world, albeit for only a whistle-stop tour.
Patriarch German-born (1867), naturalised US citizen (1917) Otto Herman Kahn was a financier who joined Wall Street Banking House Kuhn, Loeb & Co as a partner in 1897 and remained there until his death in 1934. His wife Addie (nee Adelaide Wolff), a millionairess in her own right, was considered a great beauty, and they were blessed with four children, Maud (1897), Margaret (1901), Gilbert (1903) and Roger (1907). Otto, whose personal wealth was estimated at $160 million at his peak in the 1920s, mingled as easily with the crowned heads of Europe as he did with the uncrowned presidents of the United States. A philanthropist and patron of the arts, he founded the Metropolitan Opera Company, becoming first its chairman and then its president, and was instrumental in bringing Enrico Caruso and conductor Toscanini to appear there. In 1924 he co-financed the Paul Whiteman concert at Aeolian Hall in which Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue had its debut.
His estate Okeha (OttoHermanKan) Castle at Cold Harbor, Long Island – boasting 127 rooms and built at a cost of $11 million – was the second largest private home in America and was thought to have inspired the Gatsby mansion in Scott Fitzgerald’s novella The Great Gatsby. It was supplemented in 1918 with the mansion he built in Carnegie Hill, Manhattan, albeit with a mere 80 rooms.
This is all very interesting but what, if anything, does it have to do with jazz? This is, after all, the Jazz and not the Wall Street Journal. Glad you asked, because this is where the story really starts.
Despite Otto’s sympathetic approach to jazz – he invariably made positive comments when questioned about it, had George Gershwin as a frequent and welcome house guest, co-funded the Aeolian Hall concert that introduced Rhapsody In Blue and invested $10,000 dollars in Gershwin’s Broadway show Lady Be Good – his own music of choice was classical, opera in particular. However, his two youngest children, Gilbert and Roger, were obsessed with jazz. Gilbert, the older of the two, was studying at Princeton, but found time to play banjo and saxophone with a group called the California Ramblers, a situation the press loved to record. But Gilbert was a nonentity compared to Roger, who taught himself to play virtually every instrument in the modern orchestra and rehearsed for two hours a day with a full orchestra. It’s not, of course, every 15-year-old that can afford to hire a 12-piece orchestra, together with their leader and arranger, Arthur Lange, and have them rehearse in the ballroom of his own (technically, his father’s) mansion, and then eventually (1923) buy the band outright.
Roger’s stated intention to devote his life to jazz was violently opposed by both parents and Otto forbade him to use the family name but his early success changed their opinion. Using a revised spelling of his mother’s maiden name Roger Wolfe Kahn made giant strides in popular music, all the more remarkable when we pause to reflect that this was a teenager competing with much more mature bandleaders such as Paul Whiteman, Vincent Lopez and Jean Goldkette, long resident in Detroit but happy to move to New York and toss his hat in the ring. In order to gain perspective on this we need to examine the time factor.
In the early 20s hedonism had been given its head and post-war hysteria was the name of the game; radio took off in 1922 with stations springing up like smallpox outbreaks in Hawaii after Captain Cook’s landfall in January 1778; the recording industry was expanding rapidly, every major hotel boasted a resident orchestra, and cinema, though still to find its voice, was becoming ever more popular. Roger exploited all four of these elements to the full from 1924 onwards and though he was active only for a decade he achieved much. In August 1926, for example, Time magazine wrote: “If it is strange that Otto Herman Kahn, sensitive patron of high art in Manhattan, should have a saxophone tooting, banjo-plucking, clarinet wailing, violin-jazzing son, it is stranger still that that son, Roger Wolfe Kahn, has become a truly outstanding jazzer at the perilous age of 18. Roger’s ten orchestras, one of which he leads, have netted him $30,000.” These, were, of course, 1920s dollars.
He recorded for what would become no less than three major companies – Victor, Brunswick, and Columbia – and appeared in five “short” motion pictures with his band (although produced in the silent era – 1924/6/7 – four of these titles from DeForest Phonofilm Inc featured “sound-on-film” sound) whilst the fifth, The Yacht Party (1932), was a genuine sound film in which the band performed six numbers including Roger’s own composition Crazy Rhythm.
In total the Kahn outfit made 11 appearances in the charts, including four at number three, two at number four and one, Russian Lullaby, which not only reached number one but remained there for 15 weeks. In 1927 Roger hired Hannah Williams as vocalist and she proceeded to popularise Hard-Hearted Hannah (The Vamp Of Savannah), which many readers will recall Ella Fitzgerald performing in Pete Kelly’s Blues.
Anything else? Well, yes, in 1927 Roger opened his own nightclub Le Perroquet de Paris and spent $250,000 of his father’s money making it what today we would call state-of-the-art. At one time or another musicians such as Artie Shaw, Jack Teagarden, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang passed through his band and then, in 1934, he more or less abandoned jazz in favour of aviation, his other great love.
Not so much a book as a time-capsule, The Kahns Of Fifth Avenue is simply a stonking good read and highly recommended.
The Kahns Of Fifth Avenue by Iain Cameron Williams. Self-published (thekahnsoffifthavenue.com), 728pp, ISBN 978-1916146587